6 true and tested IT superstitions
What dark powers do geeks turn to in times of need?
Editor's note: This slideshow was adapted from the article "IT superstitions: Astrology, sacrifice, and demons."
Of rubber chickens and magic switches...
People who work in IT have a certain reputation for being logical, rational, and unswayed by the mysterious or supernatural. But if that's so, why is there another strand in computer lore, with oft-retold tales of voodoo-powered rubber chickens that can fix a PDP-11, or of magic switches that could crash a computer in defiance of physical laws?
Here's a look at the superstitions and irrational beliefs that lurk beneath that Spock-like exterior.
1. It's in the stars
flickr/Remko van Dokkum
George Nemeth, a service management specialist at Opitem, is in tune with astrology, keeping a particular eye out for Mercury retrograde. "Just before this astrological phenomenon happens, I start getting calls from people with Website and email problems. It's uncanny!" He never really followed astrology much, he said, but "my fiancee pointed out how much busier I got around Mercury retrograde. It became a joke between my co-worker and I on a weekly email newsletter I used to do. Things tended to go awry for no good reason."
2. Cue the demon
When it comes to other systems of belief, techies are willing to go pretty far afield if they're desperate. Michael Robinson says, "Some years ago I directed a small team developing a frame grabber -- a board that would digitize a video signal from a television camera and place it in computer memory. For some reason we just could not get it to work properly. I promised the group I would bring in a demon to help us find the problem."
"It happened that I had at home a small Balinese demon statue. In Balinese mythology demons are horrible-looking creatures that serve a beneficent purpose by driving away evil spirits. I had come across the statue in an import shop and picked it up to decorate my mantelpiece. The statue looks like a sort of humanoid vulture/dragon with outspread wings. The next day I brought the demon statue to work and trained the camera on it. Although the statue was only about four inches high, since it was right in front of the camera, it looked huge and imposing in the video image. We started work and within about a hour we had located the problem and fixed it. From then on the frame grabber worked flawlessly."
3. Blood sacrifice
Balinese demons are one thing, but some geeks turn to even darker powers to help them in their times of need. Pete Warden, now a software engineer at Apple, mentions sinister doings at a previous gig. "Part of my job was testing graphics cards, which meant pulling them in and out of machines all day. It was very fiddly, and the widely accepted rule was that any given card wouldn't work unless you'd cut yourself at least once trying to wedge it in. They all needed a blood sacrifice."
4. The right tool for the job
Bill Zetter, who's been a software pro for nearly 30 years, explains how he deals with an operating system's holy of holies: "When editing programs or regular text files, I use Emacs; but if I'm going to be editing a system configuration file -- in Unix/Linux, that's pretty much anything in the /etc directory -- I use vi. There is no rational reason for doing this. It's more like a ceremony, or somberly putting on the priestly vestments before performing the holy task of changing the system."
5. Watch your step
There's another bit of superstition that falls under the category of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Though IT gurus are often loath to admit that they don't know everything about what goes on inside their boxes, they can be hesitant to mess with something that works, even if it's baffling. Chris Harrold, the principal consulting engineer at Sanity Solutions, describes this mindset: "The 'Repeat without questioning' superstition says that if the steps you took to fix a problem worked, you must take those same steps again, regardless of what step actually fixed the problem. Really, this is probably just laziness in not figuring out what actually fixed the first issue, but this superstition persists nonetheless."
6. I'll love it and pet it and call it... Frankenraid
Many people view the naming and personification of their computers as an affectionate little ritual -- it's like an electronic pet! One Unix sysadmin who prefers to remain anonymous recalls her days working in support in an engineering lab: "If I went on vacation, I would come back and have to walk the lab, petting all the computers in the lab to let them know that I was back and they could stop being cranky. It settled them down."
What's your IT superstition? Chime in below in the comments.